Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Rosamunde Hutt: Nothing On Earth

By | Published on Friday 24 March 2023

Coming up at Chats Palace this week are the final performances of Pursued By A Bear’s latest production ‘Nothing On Earth’, a comedy focusing on the lives and achievements of three historical women, told through the experiences of Jade, a young woman working as a carer after her usual career is put on hold because of the pandemic.

I’m always interested in anything that focuses on women’s history so of course I was interested in this. To find out more about the play and the creative team behind it, I spoke to show director Rosamunde Hutt, who is also Artistic Director of the company.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative of the play? What story or stories does it tell?
RH: ‘Nothing On Earth’ is set in a rather magical care home where Jade works – who, until the COVID pandemic swept her airline away, was a high-flying cabin crew member.

Now – following the career pattern of many – she finds herself working as a carer and in the same care home where her beloved grandfather, who looked after her as a child, had come for the final days of his life.

She is mourning him, but as she ventures into other rooms in the home discovers a world of women’s history, spirit and achievement – told through the epic endeavours of many truly remarkable women. The past and the present collide throughout.

The play is by Anna Reynolds, whose writing is a creative response to history, and we echo that in one strand of our participation programme, in which we have collected reminiscences by elders in Hertfordshire and in London with Chats Palace Club.

We’re turning these enthralling memories into short curtain-raisers which place a wide range of voices onto our stage and honour stories of locality, migration and personal heroines.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
RH: It’s a celebration of female achievement, especially against the odds. And it’s a moving portrayal of grief and loss. It’s about caring: for each other, for ourselves.

It explores what a ‘heroine’ might be and how heroism can be spectacular or simple. There are themes of dealing with life’s changes, personal development, resilience and finding courage.

CM: Can you tell us about the women the play celebrates the lives of?
RH: At the heart of the play are three real-life women.

Violet Cressy Fisher Marcks, who lived 1895-1970, and who was a pioneering explorer and journalist. She lived originally in Bushey, Watford. In the play we see her aversion to much of a domestic existence! Indeed we hear from a very exasperated husband, left to hold the fort, so to speak, in a funny reversal of the usual roles of their era.

Elizabeth ‘Dolly’ Shepherd, who lived 1886- 1983, is a balloonist and aerial artist who hailed from Potters Bar and was a regular in the skies over Alexandra Palace, where she is immortalised in murals. In the play we see how Dolly grasps her big chance in life with huge bravery and self-assurance and how it all nearly ended in tragedy – on several occasions.

Constance Lytton, who lived 1869- 1923, is an activist, writer and suffragette who lived in Knebworth House and was imprisoned and force-fed for her dedication to her cause.

Anna’s writing was also inspired by other real-life women from the Second World War era, including those who built a Wellington bomber in record time at Broughton in North Wales, and the ATA – or Air Transport Auxiliary – ‘girls’, who delivered Spitfires and other planes to airbases around the country.

We also feature the struggles of female aviators pursuing their ambitions in male-dominated countries.

CM: What made you want to do a show about these women? Where did the idea for this production come from?
RH: In 2016, Anna Reynolds created a Heritage Lottery Funded project called ‘Hertfordshire’s Hidden Heroines’.

It discovered, uncovered or re-discovered pioneering, trailblazing, game changing and generally amazing women who had lived or worked in the county but perhaps had not been recognised in their lifetimes for their often dangerous, courageous or simply awe-inspiring lives.

Our three main ‘heroines’ were central figures in this project. It felt to Anna as if their stories needed telling in other ways to complement the exhibition.

Around this time, I accepted an invitation to become the Artistic Director of new writing company Pursued By A Bear and led its relocation from Surrey to Hertfordshire. I was keen to celebrate female writers and theatre artists, and also create work which would resonate with audiences in our new home county where there isn’t so much new theatre writing on offer.

I had worked with Anna Reynolds previously and was keen to offer her a commission. So everything came together and we embarked on what ended up becoming a long, COVID-afflicted journey to research, develop and finally produce and tour ‘Nothing On Earth’.

CM: The production is coming to the end of a tour – do you think you’ll be bringing it back again at any point?
RH: We’d love to! There has been an exceptional warmth towards it from audiences, and we have managed to get audiences for a new play in places where this rarely – if ever – happens.

It has, though, taken every ounce of determination, enterprise and flexibility that we possess to get it on and toured for this premiere. We know that bringing a show back can sometimes take as much effort as the first production so it may not be easy. We’ll take a bit of time to assess how it performed and whether there is a larger audience for the show.

It’s worth mentioning that Pursued By A Bear has a commitment to trans-media storytelling – that is, opening out the many narratives in a piece of writing across different platforms.

During the gestation of ‘Nothing On Earth’ – when COVID disrupted plans for a tour – we delivered a lockdown series of short films exploring new characters related to the world of ‘Nothing On Earth’.

We’re already thinking about new film content which plays with the themes of the play and publishing the text, so that ‘Nothing On Earth’ will return but maybe in different forms!

CM: Can you tell us about the creative team behind the show?
RH: We assembled a wonderful team of female artists to create the show, many of whom had been associated with this project since its inception.

Our a cappella musical score, often evoking the world of Suffragette anthems and marches, is by Helen Chadwick, who is a composer of vocal music of international renown.

Sophia Lovell Smith – a hugely experienced theatre designer – gives us a wonderfully tourable set which creates new rooms and environments in seconds.

Emily Gray is our movement director and led Trestle – where we are based – during the time when it worked with Anna on the Hertfordshire Hidden Heroines project.

And then we were joined by emerging artists Holly Ellis as our lighting designer and Anna Short as sound designer.

CM: Can you tell us about the cast?
RH: Our talented cast also embody our mission to spotlight female talent – four female actors, one male – and our commitment to diversity. As with the creative team we have cast members who have accumulated decades in the industry with those more towards the beginning of their careers.

Jade is played by the charismatic South African actor Lebogang Fisher. She was last in a new adaptation of ‘Richard The Second’ produced by Tangle.

Dolly Shepherd is portrayed by Sarah Agha, who has worked extensively with the RSC and is currently co-presenting, with Rob Rinder, the BBC documentary series ‘The Holy Land And Us – Our Untold Stories’.

Joanna Foster is Constance Lytton and ATA girl June. She is also the singing captain for our show, leading an important strand of our participation programme – singing workshops in which audience members can learn Helen Chadwick’s songs and join the cast in performance.

Joanna runs community choirs alongside her acting career which takes her from soaps to cutting edge theatre.

Welsh actor Rhiannon Meades is intrepid Violet. She has performed extensively at the Globe and Opera North as well as with companies such as the Young Vic and the Unicorn Theatre.

Lincoln James plays the crucial role of Jade’s Granda – as well as one of Violet’s abandoned husbands and Constance’s beloved brother. Lincoln is a RADA trained actor with whom I worked around the time I first encountered Anna Reynolds.

Lincoln was in a brilliant Roy Williams play which I commissioned during my time as Artistic Director of Theatre Centre and which toured extensively throughout the UK – with a focus on schools – and to Amsterdam.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about Pursued By A Bear, its aims and ethos?
RH: Pursued By A Bear is a theatre and digital media company in residence at Trestle Arts Base in St Albans.

The company was founded – by actor Joseph Millson, recently in ‘Noises Off’ in the West End; actor and director Stuart Mullins; and the writer Craig Baxter – in 1998 to produce exciting new writing with a global focus.

We’ve worked nationally, internationally and locally with audiences in Cambridgeshire, London, Surrey and now Hertfordshire.

Our mission at PBAB is to champion women’s playwriting and female theatre artists. In addition to this commission for Anna Reynolds we have begun the development of two new plays by Afia Nkrumah.

CM: And can we talk about you now? What led you to a career in the arts? Was this what you always wanted?
RH: When I was five I was taken to see the ballet ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. I was hooked and did ballet for a long time. The grace, the storytelling, the epic fairytales entranced me.

But the dream of following in the footsteps of Margot Fonteyn far outweighed my actual talents and I found my natural home in drama, studying at the University Of Hull and then training as an actress at Webber Douglas.

I went straight into community theatre and theatre in education where we devised new plays, led workshops and engaged very actively with our audiences. From that rich experience I became a director.

There was never any doubt that I would be in theatre and I have managed to sustain a career in theatre for over forty years!

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
RH: I have been fortunate enough to lead or co-lead three seminal theatre companies: Hijinx Theatre, Theatre Centre and The Unicorn.

To be able to commission new plays, develop artistic policy, and employ scores of actors, artists and those who work tirelessly behind the scenes has been a great privilege and I now enjoy that role immensely with Pursued By A Bear.

Specific highlights would be firstly touring ‘The Snow Queen’ by Chennai-based playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar to India in 2012 and waving goodbye in Mumbai to the lorry which was taking our set to Bangalore, such an adventure!

And secondly watching ‘Nothing On Earth’ last week in Welwyn Garden City Library, with the cast surrounded by inspiring books, playing to a packed house, who were captivated by the story created by Anna Reynolds. A true engagement between actor and audience. The magic of theatre!

CM: What aims and hopes do you have for the future?
RH: I would love to take this show to more audiences throughout the UK. New plays should not just have a one off outing but deserve to be widely shared.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
RH: In 2022 I directed ‘The Mistake’ by Michael Mears for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a new play about the devastating consequences of the invention of the atomic bomb. Following a sold out run at the Arcola in February we return to the Arcola for the week beginning 17 Apr.

I will then be Workshop Director on an R&D week on ‘The Shadow World Musical’, book by Hassan Abdulrazzak, and music and lyrics by KS Lewkowicz, a love story set against the backdrop of the Yemen-Saudi war, inspired by the acclaimed book ‘The Shadow World’ by Andrew Feinstein.

‘Nothing On Earth’ is on at Chat’s Palace from 29 Mar-1 Apr. See the venue website here for more.

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